Foreign Policy Debate: Where the 2016 Democratic Candidates Stand on Human Rights and Democracy

With the approach of the October 13 Democratic presidential debate, Freedom House presents a selection of quotes from the more prominent candidates on the role of democracy in U.S. foreign policy and on strategically important authoritarian states.

With the approach of the October 13 Democratic presidential debate, Freedom House presents a selection of quotes from the more prominent candidates on the role of democracy in U.S. foreign policy and on strategically important authoritarian states: 

Hilary Clinton

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of State. 

On her time as Secretary, Clinton said, “You’re constantly trying to promote your values.  We think they’re American values, but in my view, they’re universal values and we need to stand up for them.”


  • Clinton has long been a critic of China’s human rights record. At the United Nations’ 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, Clinton famously said, “It is time for us to say here in Beijing, and for the world to hear, that it is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights.” The focus on women’s right in this speech was the beginning of a foreign policy theme that Clinton has consistently championed across her career.
  • On September 27, 2015 she tweeted, “Xi hosting a meeting on women’s rights at the UN while persecuting feminists? Shameless.”
  • In a 2011 interview she stated, “We have encouraged consistently, both publicly and privately, reform and recognition and protection of human rights.  But we don’t walk away from dealing with China because we think they have a deplorable human rights record.”
  •  In a 2010 speech on internet freedom, Clinton said, “The internet has already been a source of tremendous progress in China, and it is fabulous. There are so many people in China now online.  But countries that restrict free access to information or violate the basic rights of internet users risk walling themselves off from the progress of the next century.” Speaking more broadly about internet freedom, Clinton added, “Virtual walls are cropping up in place of visible walls.  With the spread of these restrictive practices, a new information curtain is descending across much of the world.”


  • Clinton has called for more engagement in dealing with Russia.  In July, Clinton said, “That’s why we have to be much smarter in how we deal with Putin and how we deal with his ambitions.  He’s not an easy man… But I don’t think there is any substitute other than constant engagement.”
  • Clinton also expressed her belief that the US has not done enough to thwart Russia in Ukraine and Syria: “We need a concerted effort to up the costs on Russia and Putin—I am in the camp that we have not done enough.”
  • Clinton compared Putin’s aggression in Ukraine to actions taken by Adolf Hitler outside Germany in the run-up to World War II. At a private fundraising event, she said, “Now if this sounds familiar, it’s what Hitler did back in the ‘30’s.  All the Germans that were … the ethnic Germans, the Germans by ancestry who were in places like Czechoslovakia and Romania and other places, Hitler kept saying they’re not being treated right.  I must go and protect my people, and that’s what’s gotten everybody so nervous.”


  • Clinton speaks in her memoir of a post-Mubarak Egypt in the following manner, “There is little reason to believe that restored military rule will be any more sustainable than it was under Mubarak.  To do so it will have to be more inclusive, more responsible for the needs of the people, and eventually, more democratic.” She also writes that Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, “appears to be following the classic mold of Middle Eastern strongmen.”
  • In her statement during the protests in Cairo in 2011, Clinton said, “We continue to raise with the Egyptian government, as we do with other governments in the region, the imperative for reform and greater openness and participation to provide a better future for all.  We want to partner with the Egyptian people and their government to realize their aspirations to live in a democratic society that respects basic human rights.” She added that “Leaders need to respond to these aspirations and to help build that better future for all.  They need to view civil society as their partner, not as a threat.”


  • In a 2011 interview, the Secretary Clinton stated, “I regret deeply the way that the regime in Iran is treating their own people, the level of hypocrisy that they have demonstrated in responding to the uprisings across the region.  They have demonstrated quite a talent for totalitarianism, and they have imposed a relentless mind-control mechanism that has begun to go even into what is in their textbooks, what you can learn, what you can talk about.  That is so contrary to the kind of mentality of the modern Iranian from everything we know, but it is a scary place now to live in.” She added: “The force with which the regime just slammed [the Arab Spring] down and has continued to morph into a kind of military dictatorship, with the Revolutionary Guard basically in charge, has made it even more imperative that we do everything we can to support those who are standing up for human rights and real democracy in Iran.”

Martin O'Malley

Photo courtesy of MarylandGov Pics (Flickr/Creative Commons). 

O’Malley has little direct experience with foreign policy and has has rested his candidacy largely on his economic platform. In his keynote address at the Truman National Security Project, O’Malley failed to name specific proposals for addressing any major foreign policy issues and instead spoke in general terms about strengthening U.S. cybersecurity, combating climate change, and ‘degrading’ the Islamic State.

When talking broadly about foreign policy, O’Malley says, “America’s role in the world is to advance the cause of a rising global middle class—free from oppression, free from want, free from fear.” He states, “We must create a more far-sighted and more pro-active foreign policy—based on engagement and collaboration, rather than going it alone” and “It’s understandable that many Americans would like to disengage from the world around us.  That’s understandable, but it’s not responsible.”

Talking broadly about democracy, O’Malley says, “Democratic nations are more prosperous nations.  It’s not merely a coincidence.  People in democratic nations have the opportunity to participate more, to innovate more, to take risks and start companies, and yes, to drive economic demand, consumer demand, through their higher earnings.”

China & Russia 

  • In a speech given in June, O’Malley said, “The first and foremost responsibility of the President of the United States is to protect the American people…It means re-thinking how we deal with nations like Russia and China—which are neither trusted allies nor total adversaries.”

Middle East

  • In an op-ed printed in the Detroit Free Press, O’Malley said, “In the face of unthinkable terrorism and bloodletting on the basis of religion and ethnicity alone, the U.S. must do more to protect the Middle East’s religious minorities from extremists committed to their annihilation.” He added, “Protecting religious minorities against ISIS and facilitating the safe passage of those in the most precarious circumstances is a moral imperative.  We can and must do more.”

Bernie Sanders

Photo courtesy of Phil Roeder (Flickr/Creative Commons). 

Sanders’ campaign has focused mostly on domestic economic and social issues. He has spoken about foreign policy only in very general terms.


  • As senator, Sanders co-sponsored a bill that condemned China for their actions in Tibet in 2008.  The bill called on the PRC to respect basic human rights and allow international journalists free access to China.
  • Sanders also co-sponsored a congressional resolution condemning China for its poor human rights record in 2001.  The bill declared that China should stop persecution of all religious believers and should safeguard fundamental human rights.  
  • Sanders said, “I want to see the people in China live in a democratic society with a higher standard of living.  I want to see that, but I don’t think that has to take place at the expense of the American worker.” 


  • Sanders has said that he believes the United States should work together with the rest of the world in order to address Russian aggression: “The entire world has got to stand up to Putin.  We’ve got to deal with sanctions.  There are a number of things that you could do.  But this is what you don’t do: You don’t go to war.  You don’t sacrifice lives of young people in this country as we did in Iraq and Afghanistan.”


  • The only point Sanders has made about Egypt was that we should not cut aid to the country in response to the police crackdown and coup of 2013: “It’s easy to say ‘let’s cut off aid tomorrow.’  Fine.  What happens the next day?  Does the country descend into civil war?  With aid the United States continues to have some leverage. The question is how we use that leverage.” He went on to say that aid should be used to pressure Egypt’s leadership to move the country toward democracy and to protect civil liberties and the right of peaceful dissent.  

Jim Webb

Photo courtesy of Rob Shenk (Flickr/Creative Commons). 


  • “… one of the great challenges of our time is that for decades our economic and cultural elites have been more eager to do business with China than promote its democracy.”
  • “China’s dangerous military expansion in the South China Sea and its ongoing cyber-war against millions of American people here at home must be addressed now.  The United States President has an obligation to speak directly to the threats of the behavior of China’s unelected, autocratic government.  It is paramount that President Obama deal strongly with China.” 


  • “I think there was a pattern in the Arab Spring that began largely with the Egyptian situation.  And my advice to the administration at the time was just remember that the first rule of wing walking, don’t let go of what you have until you have a firm grasp of where you are going.”